Deborah James Interview in Caracas

by Mansur Johnson

The reason I went to Venezuela with Global Exchange to support President Hugo Chavez Frias was because Eva Golinger wrote that the Bush administration had begun a massive black propaganda campaign against Chavez. ("The Bush administration has recently launched a new strategy intended to isolate and eventually topple the Venezuelan Government. The new aggression towards Venezuela is direct, open, public and hostile.This time around, the strategy is clear: turn President Chavez into an international pariah in the world media and justify an intervention to save democracy.", March 30, 2005 )

After my mother knew about my trip, she sent me a syndicated op-ed piece published in a small newspaper in Traverse City, Michigan. It was pure disinformation, slanted along the lines Eva Golinger said were being orchestrated out of Washington.

Hence my mission in Venezuela was born: it was to ask President Chavez to comment on 31 allegations in that op-ed piece. The South American Program Coordinator of Global Exchange did not give me much hope to interview Chavez.

Enter Deborah James, Global Exchange's anti-globalization point person. She was in Caracas for the 16th Festival Mundial de la Joventud y las Estudiantes (World Festival of Youth and Students) Venezuela 2005 . When she joined the delegation for dinner and described her encounters with President Chavez, I knew that to interview Deborah James would be almost the same as interviewing President Chavez.

Deborah first met President Chavez at the World Social Forum in Puerto Alegre Brazil in January 2003. She first visited Venezuela in May of 2003. She joined President Chavez on flights to Merida and Sucre in Venezuela when he was investigating the successes of community radio and land reform, respectively. While listening to part of President Chavez's address to the Tribunal on Anti-Imperialism at the 16 th Festival on TV from my hotel in Barquisimeto on August 14, 2005, I heard Mr. Chavez refer three times to "Deborah" and the camera found Deborah James in the front row. She consented to an interview at our delegation's hotel in Caracas.

MJ: In this article that smears Venezuela 's Hugo Chavez by linking him with Cuba 's Fidel Castro, who as you know is from a country with 98% literacy, 0% homelessness, universal health care, and free education, it states that Chavez has adopted numerous repressive practices of Castro; for example, "civil society is strangled".

DJ: One of the most defining characteristics of the social change going on today in Venezuela is that there is an immense amount of social participation. People across the country from poor neighborhoods who have never participated in politics before have not only been invited but facilitated so that they are now participating in some of the most profound social transformation happening anywhere in the world at this time. They have, for example, a literacy campaign that is teaching 1.4 million people in the country to read and write. There are 50,000 literacy centers, all facilitated by volunteers.

What we have seen is that some of the groups in Venezuela who use the term "civil society" are actually representatives of the opposition, mostly from the elite upper classes. They mostly function as opposition political parties. They are the same opposition political parties who have been running things for years, alternating with each other in power, with both running the country together. Lately, they have been marginalized by their own failures to deliver development to the people.

But the real sense of public participation in what we in the U.S. know as civil society is really being carried out by the massive volunteer efforts that are involved in carrying out the missions of health care, of education, of operating subsidized food centers, and a whole host of other campaigns; there are 12 missions in all.

MJ: Please comment on the charge that under Chavez "the churches are cowed".

DJ: Much of the traditional Catholic elites work very closely with the Vatican and, unfortunately, have not taken the side of the poor people in Central and South America. They do represent socially some of the old elite, and they have worked to undermine some of the actual social progress which is at the core of what it means to be a Christian; namely, what it means to believe in the message of Jesus Christ, or to be a person of faith, who operates his moral standards on teachings like "Love your neighbor as yourself". The importance of making sure that your neighbor has adequate food, health care and shelter does not occur to them, but rather they are more aligned with the traditional elites and do not work a lot with the poor people of Venezuela.

MJ: There is the charge that "teachers are muzzled".

DJ: That's an interesting concept. There have been about 5,000 new elementary schools founded since President Chavez came to office. There are over a million new elementary school students that have been matriculated since President Chavez came to office. There are about 700,000 people now in high schools that could have been dropouts, who have joined the Ribas program. These are mostly women who became mothers and had to drop out because they had to start working as a maid or a nanny. There are about 70,000 in the college program. There has been an amazing proliferation of education. Almost everybody in the country is studying. Grandmothers are learning to read and write in Mission Robinson.

This country was known as a country that sent the children of the elites to the U.S. to study on free scholarships. Now that program is being ramped down and that money is being used to guarantee access to college [in Venezuela] for poor people, for working class people, for people whose parents are farmers or laborers or construction workers.

MJ: What about the charge that under Chavez "private businesses have been decimated"?

DJ: There has been during the last five or six years of government quite a few difficulties that private business has faced. The opposition organized a devastating economic sabotage and worker lockout of the oil industry which is the primary source of revenue for the entire country. What happened under the oil strike, which was December and January 2002 and 2003, when the upper echelons of management went out, was that it cost the economy 10 billion dollars. It did decimate many small and medium sized businesses and caused the unemployment rate to go up 4 or 5%.

MJ: But that wasn't caused by Chavez, was it?

DJ: It is very interesting that this was caused by the opposition to sabotage the economy and damage ordinary working people's lives so much as to get the government to come to its knees. It was an opposition program that failed because the ordinary oil workers regained control of the oil company.

MJ: Is it true that Chavez has "taken over foreign exchange institutions"?

DJ: Yes, they did. And this is not an area I have the most expertise in, but one of the most important aspects of being a sovereign people is to be able to have control over foreigners bringing money in and out of your economy. It is to the credit of the Venezuelan government that they did that. It helped avert a worse economic crisis that might have developed during the economic sabotage and work stoppage [mentioned above] if investors had been allowed to pull their money out of the country.

The crisis that developed in Argentina in 2001, where they had privatized their banking system, was a result of Argentina not controlling their foreign exchange institutions. Whereas Malaysia during the 1997 crisis in Asia recovered the fastest because they, like Venezuela, had in defiance of the IMF imposed capital controls.

MJ: Is it true that President Chavez "established neighborhood watch committees with spies"?

DJ: This is totally hilarious. One of the most important aspects of social organization in Venezuela are neighborhood committees. Actually, I don't think it has worked that well. What has worked is a national organization on health care. I think trying to have a mass movement to invent community groups based on the neighborhoods is a longer process. Sometimes those groups are accused of being spies, other times they are the groups that do the community recycling, or mediate domestic disputes, or do a neighborhood survey, or go around seeing if everyone has light bulbs, or is going to school.

Certainly one of the defining characteristics over the last five years is social polarization, but I think the important thing to know about that is that the polarization existed way before Chavez. The rich marginalized the large majority of poor people here. What has happened is that Chavez gave voice to the people who didn't have a voice before. The rich people experience that as a polarization. The vast majority of poor people here experience it as empowerment.

MJ: What about the charge that Chavez "sacked the best in the military"?

DJ: There was a coup against the democratically elected government in Venezuela on April 11, 2001 . Many people in the higher levels of the military who participated in that coup are so longer in the military. Unfortunately, a vast number of them have not actually been charged for participating in a coup, because at the time the Supreme Court was still controlled by the opposition. The Court ruled that there had not actually been a coup! Therefore, the higher echelons of the military that carried out the coup were not to be charged for participating in a coup that the Court said did not exist.

If that had happened in the United States, the Supreme Court would have been impeached, and the people who participated in the coup would have been in Guantanamo for the rest of their lives, or subject to the death penalty for having committed treason. In Venezuela they don't have the death penalty. They believe in rehabilitative incarceration, for a maximum of 30 years.

MJ: There's an allegation that "billions in oil revenue has disappeared", but I'm not sure this is even worth asking you to comment on, since you have already indicated that the economic sabotage and worker lockout caused a 10 billion dollar loss to the economy. Is there more?

DJ: They did lose 10 billion dollars in 2003 but the amount of money coming into Venezuela is still very high. In 2004 and 2005, the price of oil was high. What's happened to the vast amount of the oil revenue is that it has gone to the foreign reserves, and they are controlled by the Central Bank. Venezuela is the only country where the Central Bank is independent of the government.

The Central Bank is controlled by the opposition forces. They have a vast amount of reserves, much more than the amount that would be considered prudent to hold. What the government had to do recently to get access to those excess funds was to pass a bill in the legislature that sets a cap on the amount of reserves. That meant that a vast amount of oil money was liberated to be used to fulfill electoral promises. Holding excess reserves was another attempt by the opposition to prevent the government from carrying out its program of delivering health care, water, land reform, technical assistance to farmers and teachers, expanding schools and lots of other amazing projects.

MJ: Can you comment on the charged statement that "poverty levels have increased from 44 percent to 54 during Chavez's misrule"?

DJ: The poverty figures are based on actual government figures. From the point in 1999 when Chavez took office to 2003, the year of the oil strike, the poverty figures did go up. Now one of the things that the opposition does, along with the people in the United States who sided with the economic elite, is to cite figures, saying, under Chavez poverty has gone up. This is true because of the economic sabotage that the opposition has carried out.

Actually, Venezuela along with Argentina has the fastest growing economy in South America . There has been a decrease in the unemployment rate and a big decrease in poverty if you include the increase in per capita income that has accrued to the population from the value of free health care, free education, and subsidized food.

MJ: What about this statement: "twenty-seven thousand Cubans have been imported to, in part, spy and do his [Chavez's] dirty work, even as some of them masquerade as doctors or teachers"?

DJ: One of the most popular programs of all of the social programs that the Venezuelan government and the people have carried on in recent years is called Barrio Adentro . That means, inside the neighborhood. It's a program to provide primary preventative health care to all citizens of the country. The program means to place a Cuban doctor and nurse for every 1,000 people in the community, as well as dentists and ophthalmologists.

There was a call at the beginning of this program for Venezuelan doctors to participate, and about a dozen responded. To meet the needs of the population, the Venezuelan government entered into collaboration with the Cuban people. They brought about 20,000 doctors and nurses from Cuba which has the highest doctor/citizen ratio of any country in the world. Cuba has more doctors working outside the country than the World Health Organization. Cuba is a country that has done medical missions to over 50 countries in the world. Venezuela is the largest project they have ever done.

At the beginning of the program, the opposition tried to paint the Cubans as spies. What happened was that the Venezuelan media had to drop that characterization, because that is not how the people experienced them. Now that practically everyone in the country has been to these doctors, they see that they receive good care, including home visits, and it's free.

Two more points: during the referendum in August 2004, when the opposition was asked what they would do about Barrio Adentro , they said they would keep it, but use Venezuelan doctors. Chavez responded by setting up a medical school program to train 20,000 Venezuelan doctors, so the Cubans could go elsewhere once the Venezuelan docs were trained and could take their place.

MJ: This next statement may give you an opportunity to segue into Chavez's vision of barter as trade. It is written regarding payment to the Cubans for the doctors, "In return, 80,000 barrels of oil per day-29 million barrels of oil per year-are sent to Cuba with no prospect for payment."

DJ: Well, they do have, starting in--I believe it was 1982-a collaborative agreement between Venezuela and Mexico, which are the two biggest oil producers in the western hemisphere, to provide low cost oil to the Caribbean and Central American countries who want to participate. It's actually subsidizing the cost, doing financing, offset loans, a lower interest rate, etc. to allow these countries to afford energy. Those are called the San Jose Accords; they are decades old.

MJ: Isn't the implication here that the oil was in exchange for the doctors?

DJ: Yes. So part of what the Venezuelan government did recently was that they elaborated on these San Jose Accords which have a very long historical precedent to provide extra funding and extra financing to the countries of the region. They extended it to provide payment with other types of goods and services that didn't involve just the transfer of money. So particularly, in the case of Cuba, the Accords have been used so that Venezuela provides oil to Cuba and Cuba can pay back with goods and services.

MJ: "The official unemployment rate in Venezuela exceeds 16 percent, a nearly 50 percent increase since 1998." True or false?

DJ: I don't actually know the figures on unemployment, so I wouldn't want to comment on that. I would say that the unemployment rate vastly went up as I said before because of the opposition oil workers lockout. There have been incredible efforts to invest in strategic industries, and many branches of the government are working to supply credit to small and medium sized businesses.

MJ: "The number of private industries has dropped from more than 11,000 to 5,000." Do you have a comment on that damning statement?

DJ: That's just not true. But the number of private businesses that have gone out of business because of the oil strike.I don't know.

MJ: All of these last few are all about the same thing, right?

DJ: They're about the opposition trying to use the economic damage that they inflicted on working people and blame it on Chavez. It's just pathetic.

MJ: OK, how about this: "Public debt has risen from $27 billion to $44 billion."?

DJ: I don't know that.

MJ: How about this: "Chavez has kept his disastrous economic policies afloat by distributing free beer to the poor."?

DJ: That's just stupid. You should know that all the beer sold in this country is sold by a company that is controlled by the opposition.

MJ: So Chavez wouldn't want to buy it from the opposition and give it away?

DJ: It's unfortunate. You go to a rally and everybody who is selling beer is selling Polar, which is owned by the opposition. That is why I don't drink beer here. A lot of the industries are with the opposition.

MJ: Is it true that "Chavez has assumed control over the oil industry."?

DJ: It is true that the government actually has control over the oil industry. It used to be controlled.let me give you one statistic that will really clear this up. Twenty years before Chavez was elected in 1998, 80 percent of the oil revenue went to the government to carry out transportation, infrastructure, security, education-all the things that governments do. And 20 percent went to the operations of the oil company.

By the time Chavez took office, those numbers were reversed. The 40,000 or so people who ran the oil company got 80 percent of the income. Meanwhile, the other 26 million people who live in this country shared 20 percent of the income from the exploitation of the natural resource that is the inherent right of every Venezuelan. So instead of having a job at the oil company, you owned the oil, which actually meant that you stole the common resources of everybody in the country. And so what really we had here was a very tiny oil related elite that ran the government.

The primary mandate under which President Chavez was elected in 1998 was that he would fairly share the common resources of oil that belongs to everybody in the country. He has delivered on that promise. It took a back-breaking exercise to regain control of it, because those people who controlled the oil company benefited for decades through the most massive corruption that Latin America has ever seen. They held on to it with everything they had, and they were willing to sacrifice the economy of the entire country to maintain control over it. They didn't care if the unemployment rose by 5 percent, or if it cost the economy 10 billion dollars, or people had to wait 12 hours in line to get gasoline. They wanted control.

MJ: Did President Chavez "fire 7,000 staff and top management in the oil industry"?

DJ: Actually, it was 17,000 that he fired.

MJ: So as a result of that is "peak production down one million barrels"?

DJ: I don't know how many barrels, but the production definitely went down. You can't fire the management of an oil company and not have some effect. So the production went down immediately after. The amazing thing is that 17,000 of the upper management were fired, yet the oil company still continued. What does that tell you about whether the management was actually doing any work? Or whether they were actually political patronage jobs, getting paid to work two days a month, the 1 st and the 15 th when they went in to pick up their check. This was a big joke.

The people who participated in the strike were exhorted by President Chavez to return to work, and they refused to do so. They had three opportunities to stop the strike and get back to work. The majority of workers did not participate in the strike. At the end, those who were participating in an insurrectionary strike, which is illegal in any country, were fired. Even the AFL-CIO, who is not friendly to Chavez, was eventually pushed to state that the strike was illegal, and they should cease and desist from doing it.

MJ: The "oil industry deteriorated" as a result of these firings but has it regained.

DJ: Oh absolutely, it definitely had deterioration for awhile while they tried to regain contracts and production, restart the pumps, and retrain workers.

MJ: So in a variation of the question above which suggested that the oil revenue disappeared, the author of this black propaganda piece I have been asking you about now suggests that "oil revenue has been stolen" and used for multiple purposes, including "to finance government political campaigns", "to buy off opponents", "to pay off the Cubans", "to buy weapons" and "to establish relations with terrorist nations and [unnamed] terrorist organizations". Do you want me to prompt you as you rundown this catalog?

DJ: Remind me if I forget one. The government has used a significant amount of their revenue to reinvest in oil production, which is very important. There have been a lot of scares that they're not investing enough because they are siphoning off some for social programs. This is not the case because oil prices have skyrocketed. They have also put the vast majority of the money that they have had access to into the social programs that have fundamentally transformed society and made participation in citizen life possible for the vast majority of working people in this country.

MJ: I'm going to have to prompt you because you're not getting to any of these things.

DJ: I'm getting to them. I'm not just going to say they didn't do this, they didn't do that, I'm going to say what they did with it first.

The government has also maintained its military. This is what governments do with their money. It is the primary function of the state to defend itself. And Venezuela does have the worry that it may be invaded by a foreign country; namely, the United States . We would hope that wouldn't happen. I don't want to be provocatory. But it is possible. And it is important for Venezuela to secure its border with Colombia, because of the incursion of terrorist groups from Colombia, with whom the United States has the best relations of any country in Latin America, into Venezuelan sovereign territory.

MJ: Finance government political campaigns?

DJ: I don't know about that.

MJ: Buy off opponents?

DJ: It is so interesting, because I have not seen-I have to answer this in a certain way. I have not seen any evidence of corruption on that level in the Venezuelan government.

MJ: Pay off the Cubans?

DJ: The Cubans are being paid in oil.

MJ: Finally, is Venezuela using the "stolen" oil money to establish relations with terrorist nations?

DJ: Venezuela is using the money to engage in strategic relations with other countries. Some are countries that the United States doesn't have good relations with. That's the United States ' problem.

MJ: Terrorist organizations?

DJ: The United States has circulated a ridiculous rumor that the Venezuelan government has been supporting the FARC for a number of years now. Despite being pressed over and over by the press, by legislatures, by the Venezuelan government to come up with one shred of evidence, the U.S. government has yet to file one shred of evidence that the Venezuelan government is supporting any type of terrorist activity of the FARC. It's part of the U.S. 's rumor mill: say it a thousand times and make it true by repetition.

MJ: What about the charge that Chavez "has financed campaigns to topple democratic governments in Bolivia and Ecuador "?

DJ: This is just crazy. The Bolivian people are capable of carrying out any sort of political program that they so desire. If anyone knows enough about the political situation in either Bolivia or Ecuador -particularly Ecuador recently where the change in government was carried out by a group of people that are not politically aligned with President Chavez. They are not the farmers and indigenous people with whom the Venezuelan government has had the strongest ties in Ecuador . It was carried out by a group of people in Quito who were very unhappy with the fact that their government was allowing in a former president who was involved in all kinds of corruption. He was being given amnesty instead of being tried, and they didn't like that.

MJ: How would we even know if Chavez was financing the campesinos in Bolivia who were protesting the privatization of water?

DJ: I would have to say I would, because I know the campesinos in Bolivia who are protesting the privatization of water; I know that they have no money. They carry their programs out by mass mobilization, not by buying ads, or by flying around and going to big meetings, or being able to pay people to come to demonstrations, which is what the opposition here does. They don't have a lot of money.

MJ: What about the charge that "Chavez sent soldiers to El Salvador to help the communist FMLN"?

DJ: I don't know anything about that charge. Help them do what? They are out of power. If he had helped them, they might have won. What did happen in El Salvador is that the people last fall were about to elect a more progressive government. The United States came in and did a gigantic, massively funded ad campaign to threaten the El Salvadoran people that if they voted for a more progressive government, the United States would cut off remittances of El Salvadorans who work in the United States and send money back to their family in El Salvador, which is the biggest source of income for the El Salvadoran people. The United States had such a successful campaign of propaganda that they would cut off remittances that people were very scared that would happen. They ended up electing a government, Tony Saca, who is totally pro CAFTA, and totally against his own people, and totally pro the United States.

MJ: Has "Chavez sent funds and help to their fellow Sandinistas in Nicaragua "?

DJ: No, I don't think Chavez has sent any funds to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, but again, I think these are the type of questions that.No. I work with a lot of social movements, and I think if Chavez was handing out money, he would be handing it out to us, and we don't get any. I have not seen him give any money to anybody, and I think this is a preposterous idea.

What is being exported from this country is a vision. That is what the U.S. government is afraid of. He's not exporting arms, he's not exporting money, he's not exporting staff. He's exporting a vision that people can have a different life. And that people don't have to be under the foot of the United States. That they don't have to follow the U.S. economic policy, which has failed to deliver development in their hemisphere for 25 years.

They can have a different vision that involves sovereignty, that involves having a national development plan, that provides jobs and resources for people, that involves being sure that natural resources in the country like oil, forests, or whatever it is benefit the local community rather than foreign transnational corporations.

That is the vision that he is exporting, and that is what the U.S. government is afraid of, and that is why they continue to say that he is exporting all this other stuff that he is not doing, while the U.S. government is continuing to fund financially and through other kinds of support opposition and reactionary forces in lots of other governments around the world.

MJ: I assume it's true when this inflammatory journalist who has provided the fodder for your cannon during this interview writes that Chavez has established relations with North Korea, but unknown to me was the notion that Chavez "has boasted of building a nuclear program with help from Iran ".

DJ: I don't know about that.

MJ: What about the charge that "Chavez rigged the election by making 500,000 people from China, the Middle East and the notorious tri-border region with Brazil citizens"?

DJ: One of the programs that the Venezuelan government carried out last summer was that they nationalized many people who had been living in this country for decades. They had upwards of-I don't remember the exact number, I knew it last year-somewhere around one or two million people, primarily of Colombian descent. They had been economic and political refugees here for many years. There were also immigrants from Lebanon, Spain, Palestine.

Citizenship was offered to citizens who had lived here as Venezuelans for several decades. This was a program widely celebrated as legalizing people who had lived here a long time. This was the first time the government acknowledged the contribution these people had made to the country by conferring on them all the rights of citizenship. It was a celebration of diversity for the first time.

MJ: Do you know anything about the charge that the "associates of the 9/11 hijackers traveled with Venezuelan passports"?

DJ: Yah, the associates of the 9/11 hijackers traveled with Saudi Arabian passports. I think most people in the U.S. know that. Saudi Arabia is one of the closest government allies of the United States .

MJ: But not Venezuelan passports?

DJ: The article you're reading from is probably the first time that ridiculous and stupid idea that is not worth responding to has ever been floated.

MJ: The last question is: Does Chavez have "plans to redirect oil sent to the U.S. to China in 2007"?

DJ: That's a very good question, and the answer is no. Venezuela is committed to keeping up the amounts of oil to the United States, as long as the U.S. government does not act in an aggressive, hostile and violent manner toward Venezuela . Chavez has been very clear that the economic benefits between the two countries are mutually beneficial. You can find no quote from any official of any plan to diminish the oil supply to the United States. They have said if the U.S. were to invade Venezuela, or interfere with Venezuela in an extra-legal manner, that they would consider breaking off economic relations, which makes sense. You are not going to continue relations with a country that has invaded you.

That said, Venezuela does have plans to greatly expand its oil production, and that new production will go to other countries, including China.

Mansur Johnson, a union activist from Tucson Arizona, joined a Global Exchange delegation to Venezuela, August 10-20, 2005. He may be reached at